Poroshenko, ex-president, returns to Ukraine, upsets politics

KYIV, Ukraine — Former Ukrainian president and leading opposition figure Petro O. Poroshenko returned to Kyiv on Monday, where he faced arrest, adding internal political unrest to the growing threat of an invasion Russian.

Poroshenko’s return has shed light on Ukraine’s flawed politics, which have been mostly in the background in recent weeks as the United States and its allies in Europe scramble to prevent intervention Russian military.

He arrived Monday morning at Kiev’s Zhuliani airport, where a scene broke out at passport control. Mr Poroshenko said border guards had for some time refused to allow him to enter the country, as he was due to appear for a hearing that day in Kyiv. He then passed through border control but said authorities had confiscated his passport.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been embroiled in a long-running feud with Mr. Poroshenko, who served as president from 2014 to 2019. Since Mr. Zelensky took power, Mr. Poroshenko has been questioned as a witness in a series of criminal cases. which critics say were politically motivated.

Mr Poroshenko appeared in court later on Monday on charges of high treason and supporting terrorism, but late in the evening in Kyiv the court had not issued a decision.

His appearance in the capital where he once ruled comes after a week of mostly futile negotiations between Russia and the West seeking a solution to tense disagreements over Eastern European security.

In an interview ahead of his return to Ukraine, Mr Poroshenko said his arrest could help Mr Zelensky ward off a rival but that political instability would play into Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s hands.

“He wants to undermine stability in Ukraine,” Poroshenko said of Mr Putin. “He analyzes two versions: one version is military aggression across the Ukrainian-Russian or Ukrainian-Belarusian border. The second is simply to undermine the stability inside Ukraine, and in this way prevent Ukraine from our future membership in NATO and the EU”

In Kyiv, opinions differed on whether the threat of arrest was just another maneuver in Ukraine’s typically Byzantine politics, or something more ominous related to the Russian threat.

Analysts have suggested that Mr Zelensky could take advantage of the distraction of Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border to ward off an opponent, or that he hoped to quell possible opposition protests if he was forced to make unpopular concessions in Moscow to avoid an invasion. .

“Maybe he thinks that with forces on the border, Ukrainians won’t protest” against the opposition leader’s arrest, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a newspaper covering politics. If so, he said, it’s a risky move.

“With the situation on the border, when everyone is shouting, ‘There will be a war,’ it’s very strange,” Yermolenko said of the spectacle of Ukraine’s two leading politicians bickering despite the existential threat that weighs on their country. “It just seems ridiculous.”

Polls have consistently shown Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Poroshenko to be Ukraine’s most popular politicians. Mr. Poroshenko has a base of support in Ukrainian nationalist politics, particularly in the western parts of the country, which want closer ties with Europe, and he blamed Mr. Zelensky for giving ground in the peace negotiations with Russia to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Poroshenko left Ukraine last month, saying he had meetings in Europe. Prosecutors say he left to avoid a court hearing.

Aides to Mr. Zelensky say the charges against Mr. Poroshenko are justified and that the courts have decided the timing of the arrest and other actions, including the freezing of Mr. Poroshenko’s assets earlier this month .

The former president has been accused of missing a hearing last month while traveling overseas. He returned to Ukraine on Monday despite reports in Ukrainian media that a court had issued a sealed arrest warrant.

Mr Poroshenko left the presidency in 2019, when he lost an election to Mr Zelensky, a former comedian who portrayed himself as a political outsider who would fight corruption and root out entrenched class interests Ukrainian politics. Mr. Zelensky’s popularity has since plummeted. Opinion polls today show only a slight advantage in a potential future election against Mr Poroshenko, who is now an MP in the European Solidarity party.

Mr Poroshenko offered no evidence of a Russian hand in the political unrest and described internal Ukrainian wrangling as the most likely cause of the legal pressures he has faced. But he added that Mr Zelensky could hope to win concessions from Russia by arresting a politician aligned with the nationalist wing of Ukrainian politics.

“I am absolutely convinced that this is a very important gift for Putin,” Poroshenko said. “Maybe with this gift he wanted to start a negotiation with Putin, as a precondition.”

After massing tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border throughout the fall, Russia last month demanded that the United States and NATO withdraw their forces from Eastern European countries and ensure that Ukraine does not join the Western alliance.

Diplomatic talks last week with Russia ended without result, and Russian officials now say they are awaiting a written response to their requests from the United States.

As a contingency, should diplomacy fail, Ukraine has also quietly continued talks with Russia and offered a bilateral meeting between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin. On Friday, Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andri Yermak suggested a three-way video conference with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders and President Biden.

Mr Poroshenko’s controversial return was not the first sign of political unrest. In November, as Russia stepped up its deployments along the border, Mr. Zelensky told reporters that Russia was also planning a coup.

He said Russian agents were seeking to lure one of Ukraine’s wealthy businessmen, Rinat Akhmetov, into a plot against his government. The businessman was “drawn into a war against the Ukrainian state,” Mr. Zelensky said, but he offered no evidence and did nothing to arrest Mr. Akhmetov.

Mr. Akhmetov has vehemently denied any involvement in a plot to undermine Mr. Zelensky’s government.

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